How We Can Encourage Diversity & Flexibility in Traditionally STEM Roles

As a management consultant and executive coach, Yemi Penn works closely with people across STEM organisations to increase diversity and positively disrupt the ways in which they work. She develops strategies to help individuals work smarter, not harder and be more efficient.

Words By Yemi Penn, Managing Director of Penny Consulting and W Squared Coaching.

Yemi, who is originally from London but now living in Australia, has worked as a project management consultant in the engineering sector for over 16 years.  Her mission for Penny Consulting is to disrupt the way people work, giving organisations and their people the tools and strategies to work smarter and become more efficient.

Here she talks about how she believes that STEM organisations in New Zealand need to adapt their work and communication styles to actively encourage diversity, through prioritising the skill sets and flexibility that will encourage a wider range of talent into these industries.

“Here in New Zealand, flexible working is fast being adopted by businesses who want to get the very best out of individuals, rather than enforcing the rigidity of the traditional 9-5. With an understanding of how people’s circumstances and lifestyles change during the course of their working lives, I have worked with businesses to offer solutions including flexible working hours, job-sharing, a compressed week and of course, remote working. Each one has enabled people to manage their work life balance with greater independence and autonomy.

Essentially, flexibility allows individuals to dictate how and when they want to work, which in turn brings about increased motivation, commitment, efficiency and productivity.

Even our friends at Employment New Zealand advocate flexible working for businesses across the country, identifying that: ‘Offering your staff flexibility means allowing them to work in ways that fit in with their outside life. Many employers have already adopted flexible working arrangements because they make good business sense… For employees, the opportunity to work flexibly can help them strike a better balance between their paid work and other responsibilities.’

So what is holding us back?

Diversity works well when an organisation accepts flexibility for its workforce, something that STEM organisations are encouraged to prioritise – and diversity isn’t just from a gender balance perspective, but also focuses on making the most of the range of skills present within a company. Progress is made when disruption to an organisation’s routine comes from individuals being proactive and accepting responsibility to drive the changes that they want to see. From this starting point, safer environments are built and positive cultures are formed.

From a leadership and management level, once businesses are able to acknowledge that most core activity takes place within the 10am – 2pm window, the options for flexibility are open wide. By giving people the autonomy to choose hours that have a cross over, this enables a team to respond effectively to the inevitable flow and change of each working day. This might be increased project demands, client requirements or to accommodate the team members who have childcare commitments – whatever the circumstances, it is flexibility that ensures that continuity is maintained and that resources can be managed efficiently.

As a business owner, I completely empathise with organisations that shudder at the thought of flexible working, as when it is poorly managed, the positive disruption has the potential to break continuity, and therefore progress. Other challenges that surface and should be considered by individuals as much as business leaders, are the financial implications – working ‘flexibly’ might mean taking home less money in some cases if your hours ultimately become less, but on the other hand, you might actually value your time as a resource over money – so, the benefits of flexible working are non-financial.

Organisations should also seek to measure output rather than the hours clocked up. For example, if I can deliver a project in two days but it might take another individual eight days, I believe that I should be paid for the quality of the work that has been delivered. Tackling individual working situations can be difficult – but this again demonstrates that in looking to achieve the best results from everyone, the traditional routines also need to be disrupted.

Challenging the status quo

When we look at how we can increase the number of women within the STEM industries, flexibility is just one part of the jigsaw to ensuring that some of the brightest minds are encouraged into roles that have historically been viewed as ‘masculine’.

The world has natural diversity for a reason and without assuming that all women carry the same skill set, there are innate abilities that women possess. Businesses need to challenge the status quo and place greater importance on different perspectives, by focusing on skills across both genders such as patience, resilience, tenacity, multitasking, planning and analysis and emotion – each plays a critical part of the reasoning and collaboration processes within STEM roles.

Emotional intelligence and communication

I’ve always thought that ‘ego’ stands for: ‘Edging Greatness Out’. ‘Ego’ is when we struggle to hear any other thoughts, opinions or beliefs that differ from ours and we start to operate in a siloed world. Effective communication is about suppressing one’s ego and having the ability to listen twice as hard as we do to our own contributions, whilst maintaining clarity on the desired outcome.

When communicating, it helps to understand who the audience is, acknowledging that we all have different modes of receiving communication and what are the most appropriate forms of communication for the situation – whether it is face to face, email, digitally or creatively. Emotional intelligence isn’t just about having an awareness of others, it is about being in tune with the personality and energy of others.

Top tips for STEM stars

It is important to identify that just because organisational and employee structures have been perceived to have worked well in the past, it does not mean that these are going to achieve the best results in relation to output, recruitment, company culture, or innovation in the future.
It’s vital for our STEM industries to consider how an employee engages in work, to make the most of opportunities for global growth and positive change.

Focusing on the above issues, I have helped people within the STEM sectors wake up to the benefits of diversity in the workforce and encourage both businesses and individuals to bring on the changes. These small steps can be easily initiated by asking:

What working flexibly looks like and how it could transfer into your business culture?

  • What are the needs of the people in your organisation?
  • How does each person work effectively as an individual?
  • What are the opportunities for diversity of leadership?
  • What are the opportunities to overcome any hierarchical structures?
  • OK, but how do I implement the changes that are needed?

Knowing how to become a disrupting force in the industry whilst implementing changes, offering flexible, diverse working conditions and championing both men and women can be an overwhelming prospect!

Here are a few ideas to start the process:

The Challenge of Always Challenging

In the end, successful positive disruption requires not only a desire to challenge the norm, but a clear vision, comprehensive research, planning, backing and endless perseverance.

Foster a Culture Formed on Disruption

It’s important to consider how you can maintain the disruptive spirit, even years down the road. Building a culture that is open to fresh perspectives, change and embraces people who ask questions, challenges ideas and shows curiosity, is essential. Don’t just follow your competitors, but make your company the forward-thinking business in your industry. Making these changes and enforcing flexibility to suit both women and men creates a culture that is committed to working smarter, not harder.

A Strong, Diverse Team

You need people who are willing to challenge each other, from different backgrounds, with different strengths, yet collectively possess a unifying charge to create and produce change. Diversity in people is what this industry needs, including diversity in leadership whereby fresh ideas will continue to drive businesses forward.

Daring to Sit Outside the Box

Most businesses that succeed typically do something different – having a diverse team provides the opportunity to hear how things might have been done differently in other industries, countries or projects. Being open to alternatives that differ from an organisation’s traditional culture is a great start to accepting and implementing change. While diversifying the organisation and implementing positive disruption, ideas of change and progress from all team members naturally progresses innovation.

Implementing these measures will allow organisations to start to diversify authentically. By introducing open communications and flexibility, each measure will contribute to improved work conditions, higher productivity and an increased workflow, whilst also importantly allowing individuals and teams to work happily and with more fulfillment.

By ensuring that these tips are at the forefront of recruitment and retention policies, our New Zealand STEM organisations will not only see an increase in high quality individuals coming into the sector, but we will also see continual growth – positioning diverse New Zealand at the pinnacle of STEM success!”